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The first flowers of the season are now bravely emerging - primrose, coltsfoot, wild daffodil and sweet violet - a welcome sign of spring and a reward for the hours spent raking plane tree leaves! These plants would have been submerged below thick piles of plane tree leaf litter, had we not removed the plane leaves last autumn - one of the tasks described by Nicky in the second part of her year in the life of a Wildlife Garden volunteer:


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Wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, on 22nd February

Image © Jonathan Jackson


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Sweet violet, Viola odorata, on 22nd February

Image © Jonathan Jackson


“As autumn arrives, the Wildlife Garden closes in October to the public to enable vital maintenance work to take place. The sheep are here grazing the meadow, and people are often surprised to see them in central London. With waders on I help to clear the pond of overgrown plants, hoping I won’t fall in.

The Garden is surrounded by plane trees which are non-native and protected but, as the leaves start to fall, the huge job of raking and recycling the leaves begins. The light levels are low now, the air crisp and us happy band of volunteers set to work.


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A thick layer of plane tree litter in December!

Image © Derek Adams



As I rake carefully around the plants and gather up the leaves, the soil is exposed and I notice a little robin is watching me, pleased that an unlucky worm or two is to be had. I see something else move and go in to investigate, and find a frog that probably isn’t too pleased about being disturbed.


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A robin, Erithacus rubecula

Image © Phil Hurst


“Excuse me but could you tell me if the huge department store is this way?" Startled, I look up at the railings on the street, “Yes just keep walking and it’s on your right, you can’t miss it”. For a moment I had forgotten that I was in the centre of a major city. There is a constant hum of cars and sirens and chatter of people outside the fence around the Garden, yet I hardly notice it as there are too many other things to grab my attention.

The autumnal colours are wonderful, the bright yellow cherry tree leaves and the red and green spindle leaves with cerise coloured berries are magnificent. Is that a fox in the trees who’s been watching me?  In a second he’s gone.

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Autumn colours

Image © Derek Adams


As the light starts to fade I look up at the Museum and it takes on a whole new look. I must confess the glass front of the Darwin Centre next to us gives some fantastic views and if I find the time I like to ride up and down in the lift just to take in that of the Wildlife Garden. I’m sure that wasn’t on any list of attractions!


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The Wildlife Garden as viewed through the windows of the Darwin Centre in December last year

Image © Sue Snell


When it's almost dark in the Garden, it’s time to go; the arrival of the Museum's Ice Rink and its accompanying carousel that light up the other side of the lawn is a sure sign Christmas is approaching. One last look before I head for home, I smile to myself and think what an amazing place.”


We look forward to another year working with Nicky.


For the past few days we have been coppicing and pollarding some of our hazel, alder and field maple, using the cut poles as binders and stakes for our woven fence repairs. Woven fences border the meadow and other areas where sheep-proof fences are necessary.


The woven fences are also reminders of one of our volunteers, John Chabrillat, who sadly died in November. John, originally from France, had lived in England for around 40 years and still retained an endearingly strong French accent. In retirement John worked as a conservation volunteer for several organizations including the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Ealing Council park rangers. He had been a volunteer in the Wildlife Garden since autumn 1997. John specialized in woodland management.


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John Chabrillat working on a woven fence


Always arriving in the garden promptly at 9.30 am on his appointed day, John often brought his own tools - such as bill hook or hatchet - cleverly wrapped up in newspaper to avoid any suspicion on the train. I was reminded of his hachet-carrying habit by Roger of the Surrey Wildlife Trust where John often worked in Nower Wood nature reserve


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John preparing coppiced stems for his woven fence



John shared his skills in coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying and was always looking to perfect his own techniques by attending the coppicing workshops held here for Museum Members and volunteers.


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John learning how to ‘bodge’ during a woodland workshop


He taught us how to build woven fences using hazel and ash. Any surplus wood would be neatly sawn or chopped up and used for log piles created in his inimitable style. 


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One of John’s log piles – ideal habitats for toads, newts, fungi and many invertebrates


John worked on a variety of other tasks throughout the year including weekend sheep care. He was full of interesting facts and funny anecdotes and arranged reciprocal volunteer outings between Nower Wood and the Museum. He grew vegetables in his back garden and in summer months would present us with gifts of tasty home-grown tomatoes.


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John making a woven willow barrier


We have missed John since he ‘retired’ from volunteering nearly 2 years ago and, now we know he will not be returning, it seems fitting in this season of woodland work to remember John - a true woodsman -  and to describe the art of coppicing in his words, as they appeared in an article for the Wildlife Garden page of the Museum’s Membership magazine, Nature First in Spring 2002.


Coppicing by John Chabrillat, conservation volunteer:

"Although coppicing is generally associated with the open countryside, it also finds its place - albeit small - in the Wildlife Garden. Coppicing consists of cutting trees, preferably saplings, to ground level, and then allowing the stumps (or stools) to grow back for up to 12 to 15 years. This resulting growth is a straight piece of timber, ideal for weaving into fencing or hurdles, tool handles, or in medieval and Tudor days, wattles for wattle and daub houses. Hazel and sweet chestnut are still the main coppice trees in southern England, and sometimes English oaks are allowed to grow to maturity for heavy timber - this is called coppice with standards.


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Workshop leader, Rob Graham demonstrating coppicing in the Wildlife Garden


Coppiced woodland produces a better structure of growth than would occur naturally. Many more plants will grow and it provides a more attractive environment for birds and insects, including butterflies, as has been proven in conservation coppicing. It has been said that when man developed coppicing, it was the only time he improved nature.


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Coppiced woodland benefits spring flowers such as primroses (above) and bluebells and stitchwort (below)


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The practice may have been introduced in this country by the Romans. It is still widely practiced in France and Italy for firewood and charcoal production. It was certainly practiced in Norman times here, as ‘coppice’ is an Anglo-Norman word derived from the old French copez (to cut). In England it had become the most common way of woodland management by the end of the 13th century. Before the use of coal, it provided a renewable source of timber and firewood, which helped to maintain a constant supply of fuel for the iron industry without endangering the survival of woodland.


In the Wildlife Garden, hazel and ash are coppiced to provide supple and smooth stakes for ‘dead’ hedges, which make good stock-proof fences to control our summer sheep."


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One of John’s woven fences visible behind the sheep he loved to watch


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Goodbye and thank you John